Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Most Realistic Fish-bot You've Ever Seen - and What it Could Mean for Naval Warfare

Bio-inspired maritime robotics is an emerging field gaining significant traction. Two examples the U.S. Navy has funded include Boston Engineering's Bioswimmer, and the odd robotic jellyfish, Cyro.  Both of these projects look clumsy compared to a robotic fish recently developed by a consortium of Polish researchers from the Technical University of Krakow, the marine technology firm  FORKOS, and the Polish Naval Academy.  The group's CyberRyba ("Cyber-fish") autonomous underwater vehicle can move along a preset route, but will eventually be able to autonomously avoid obstacles and log data from a sonar or video camera. The carp-like CyberRyba's uncanny realistic movement is aided by an articulating body and tail as well as independently moving pectoral fins allowing it to hover in place.

The ultimate goal of the research is to support the European Defence Agency's "Swarm of Biomimetic Underwater Vehicles for Underwater ISR" (SABUVIS) program beginning in 2015.  The EDA currently runs a €53.7 million Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS) program, in which 11 countries are focused on improving mine-counter measures and related naval technologies.

How might such swarm of life-like robo-fishes be employed tactically by a Navy? There are several possible future scenarios, with the most obvious case being environmental characterization. Hydrography, the study of the physical features of the ocean, and oceanography are critical for nearly all naval operations. An understanding of a body of water's temperature, salinity, bottom composition, acoustic properties, etc. supports amphibious landings, anti-submarine warfare, and mine counter-measures.  Autonomous underwater vehicles are rapidly becoming the go-to technology for these operations, and a swarm of AUVs communicating with each other and perhaps a mothership or base station would complete survey missions more rapidly than individual drones or divers. To conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), schools of cyber-fishes might emplace, monitor, and relay data from unattended underwater sensors or be the sensors themselves.  In support of future anti-submarine warfare, AUVs positioned at various places in the water column could each carry a single hydrophone, enabling them to triangulate the acoustic signals from an enemy submarine.

See these posts for more information on how drone swarms will impact future naval warfare.